Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rustic Charm at Donner Pass: Clair Tappaan Lodge

Your host recently spent a night at the rustic Clair Tappaan lodge in Norden, CA, near the Sugar Bowl ski resort off old Highway 40 at Donner Pass. Owned and operated by the Sierra Club, the lodge is a great place for a no frills budget stay while downhill skiing or pursuing other winter activities.

Built in 1934 by Sierra Club volunteers, the lodge has a friendly and casual atmosphere and is located in an area with a typically deep snow pack (see photo). The lodge is named after a prominent Sierra Club volunteer and chapter chair from the early 1900's.

What makes the lodge particularly attractive is the reasonable price, about $60 per night (cheaper for Sierra Club members), which includes three full family-style meals. There is one male dorm and one female dorm, as well as several group dorms and private rooms for couples and families. Regardless of where you stay, bring your sleeping bag. Though the accommodations are bunk beds, the bathrooms and the male dorms have been recently renovated.

While the amenities are basic, there is a communal hot tub, well-stocked library, and large stone fireplace-appointed social hall with ample board games to provide amusement. Meals are served in the functional dining hall, which may bring back memories of Scout of summer camp.

The atmosphere at the lodge can affect the experience. By going mid-week, your host was fortunate enough to have the large 10 bed dorm room all to himself. In fact, there were only 10 guests at the lodge, including a father and son from Switzerland in the USA for an orienteering competition, a chatty man from Mendocino, and several elderly ladies enjoying the snow shoeing and cross country skiing. It's not typically a party place, and quiet hours start at 10 pm. However, weekends typically are much more crowded and booked out weeks in advance, and it is not uncommon for some of the larger group dorms to be occupied by Cub Scout or church groups. Expect to be conversational with your table-mates at dinner, many of whom will have an eco-political slant. Unless debate is your favorite game, choose your conversation carefully.

The food is decent enough. Our dinner included breaded chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, creamed corn, bread, and chocolate cake. A variety of hot drinks are available. Breakfast was french toast, fruit, and coffee. The cooks set out a rather generous buffet of breads, lunch meats, and cheeses, along with fruit, chips and cookies in order to pack our own lunches. Given the volunteer nature of the Sierra Club, every guest is asked to volunteer for a chore throughout their stay, such as helping prepare food, cleaning, or taking out the trash.

For those that are not skiing, the lodge rents snow-shoes and sleds, and there are several cross country and snow-shoe trails right out the back door.

The lodge is located up a short path from the old Donner Pass Road (Highway 40). Parking is available in a large lot across the highway. While plowed regularly, beware that the lot can be slippery for two-wheel drive sedans. It took your host 2 hours to free the car in the morning, after a wheel fell into an ice rut.

The lodge is staffed by friendly Sierra Club employees, who are able to answer questions. In addition to winter activities, the lodge is open throughout the year for those interested in hiking or checking out the old transcontinental railroad tunnels nearby.


Clair Tappaan Lodge
19940 Donner Pass Road
Norden, CA 95724
fax: 530-426-0742

Price: $59.92 per person per night (tax included). 10% discount for Sierra Club and Military Service members. Reservations are best made on their webpage.

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